- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Though much merriment and tut-tutting arose from President Bush's comments about having gazed into the depths of Russian President Vladimir Putin's soul, Mr. Bush is far from the only policy-maker to be taken with the keen-eyed former KGB agent. The front pages of newspapers yesterday showed Mr. Putin in a passionate embrace with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, celebrating the first Sino-Russian treaty of "cooperation and friendship" between the two former communist rivals since Mao and Stalin. Their meeting was said to have been characterized by "effusive gestures of camaraderie." Such bonhomie, such good cheer! It seems Mr. Putin is quite a charmer after all. Though the signatories denied that the treaty was directed against third countries, it is clear that the Russians are engaging in a little triangulation of their own. The two leaders stated that they wanted a "just and rational new international order." Of course, the subtext here is the proposition that the international order is not just or rational at present - when the United States is in a position of international dominance.

It is too soon, however, to conclude that a grand alliance is in the works. It is much more likely is that Mr. Putin is deploying his considerable charms in several directions. Recent meetings with European leaders such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, however, in which they roundly condemned Russia's human rights record and crackdown on the press, seem rather to have cooled the Russian leader's passion for the European Union, which he was otherwise assiduously courting. In other words, Mr. Putin's allegiances are fleeting and opportunistic.

The relationship between Russia and the United States will be a focal point of the G-8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, starting Friday. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in her speech to the National Press Club last week, at their meeting in Slovakia in June, "President Bush and President Putin initiated a conversation about building a strategic framework that is post-Cold War in substance, not just in rhetoric." The two are planning to build on this framework, and on the initial rapport between them.

Mr. Putin also seems to have been a major hit with the East- West Institute Task Force report on U.S.-Russia policy, which came out Monday, "Toward the Common Good: Building a New U.S.-Russian Relationship." The document is well-timed to influence the debate over the future of the relationship and is the latest in a long series of working papers on the subject emanating from Washington think tanks in recent months.

In a meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times on Monday, task force member and former senator Alan Simpson was nothing less than colorful in his praise for the new Russian president. In Mr. Simpson's view, Mr. Putin is Russia's last, best hope, a man who means business, who does not beat about the bush, who has put his heart and soul into a legislative reform agenda. He allegedly also deeply appreciates the fact that Mr. Bush stuck by his comments on the purity of Mr. Putin's soul when criticism came flying fast and furious from politicians and media here at home. "If you turn down this opportunity to work with the Russians," so Mr. Simpson suggested in his uniquely homespun way, "you can come knock on my box. I won't care, I'll be dead, but future generations will be the losers." Mr. Simpson also proposed that skeptics who look at Russian actions as opposed to Russian rhetoric and charm can "kiss my gazoo." Interesting.

Now, the EastWest Institute's report is not quite as gushing, but it still focuses on building trust and cooperation between the two former rivals, a worthy cause provided that inconvenient facts are addressed honestly and do not get swept under the rug. "A new relationship between the U.S. and Russia could provide the basis for creating new multilateral mechanisms that more effectively address the problems posed by traditional as well as new threats, such as terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction, the spread of infectious diseases and narcotics trafficking," the report says.

But what about the fact that Russia itself is a weapons proliferator with its sales to Iran, Iraq and China? What about the fact that Mr. Putin came into office talking about a "dictatorship of laws"? Or the fact that under his regime, the press has seen more rough treatment than at any time during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev for that matter? Or the awful persecution of the Chechen people, whose cities have been flattened by the Russians? Well, Mr. Simpson would like for all those facts to find their way up the old gazoo as well.

One hopes that Mr. Bush and his team remember the advice of President Reagan when dealing with the Soviets: Trust, but verify.

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